Couple takes photographic road trip to get last of dying film developed
Kodachrome: Paul Simon sang about it, some of the world's most iconic photos were taken with it and it led Milwaukee photographer Erik Ljung on a 1,400-mile pilgrimage that he says turned out to be about so much more than developing a few pictures.
Like many photographers, Ljung found himself with undeveloped Kodachrome and the news that Dwayne's Photo, a tiny photo processor in Parsons, Kan., was about to run out of the last of the chemicals used to develop the world's first succesfully mass-market color still film.
"I know Kodachrome was this historic film and the colors are amazing. When they announced that they were going to stop producing it, I didn't have much money at the time, but I was just like 'I've got to do it'," Ljung said.
He put 10 rolls of Kodachrome on his credit card shortly before Kodak discontinued the film in 2009. But when Dwayne's announced that Dec. 30 would be the last day they'd accept film to develop, Ljung found himself with a single 36-frame roll of film left to shoot.
"I was putting a lot of pressure on how I was going to shoot that last roll and I just kept putting it off and putting it off. All of a sudden it was nine or 10 days away," said Ljung, "My girlfriend was like 'How are we going to shoot this?' I was like 'Let's shoot the last roll driving down there and we'll just hand deliver it,' kind of joking and she said 'Yeah, let's do it.'"
Short on funds, Ljung and his girlfriend Sheila Teruty, decided to make a go of it anyway.
"We wanted the last roll to be a kind of roadside Americana, midwestern type vibe," Ljung said.
After getting a late start Ljung and Teruty pulled into Tampico, Ill., the birthplace of President Ronald Reagan.
"They had Ronald Reagan murals all over the place, Ronald Reagan Park, I think they had a library. They had a hair salon there called 'Hair Force One' it was just ridiculous," Ljung said.
Unable to find the house, they asked some girls the saw playing in the park for help.
"They pointed across the street and I turned around and saw this plain white house that looked very well lived in. There were kids toys all over the yard and it said 'Ronald Reagan's birth home' and then it said 'For Sale.' It was kind of depressing," said Ljung, who snapped some pictures and continued on.
They spent that night in a cheap motel outside Grinnell, Iowa, and got a tour from some locals who dared Ljung to eat some pickled gizzards.
"I had to indulge ... It was truly awful," Ljung said laughing.
They made it into Kansas and took pictures the next day, stopping along the way to snap pictures before meeting up with a cousin of Ljung's a couple hours away from their final destination.
"I couldn't really sleep that night. At that point I had 13 exposures left to shoot and we had to get there at noon and we were about two-and-a-half hours out. I only got about an hour of sleep because I was kind of jittery about getting the next day started," Ljung said.
Ljung said they often turned heads as they stopped to take pictures in the small plains towns along the way.
"I was trying to save my last picture for Dwayne's ... Because everyone is talking about how Dwayne's is the last place and I was going to save it for that. I was finding so many cool things though that the last frame was actually of this mashed up roadkill out in the middle of the road," said Ljung, "It was kind of a not so subtle ending. Like here is the death of Kodachrome in this last frame."
When Ljung and Teruty finally pulled into the parking lot at Dwayne's they were surprised to find a line of like-minded photographers wrapped around the building that had also made the pilgrimage.
"We met a lady who was there from London, a couple from Belgium and people from all over the United States who had flown in there or drove there," said Ljung, "It was great. Dwayne's is just this small little room and most people are spilling outside the building taking pictures."
During the return trip Ljung's car broke down several times. Again and again people from nearby towns lent a helping hand, giving them rides, helping them find mechanics and offering up their homes to the young couple.
"It was unreal. People were just amazing," said Ljung, "When the car broke down all those times it could have been a huge Downer on the trip. In reality we went through so much adversity we grew closer and all these people who were around us and helped us made it a very humbling experience."
He has yet to receive the results of the photos taken during the trip, but for him the trip turned out to be about so much more than what's captured in those 36 frames.
"I usually wouldn't be that open and talkative when meeting people but sometimes just having the camera bridges that gap, so I got to meet a lot of locals and hear their stories about growing up in these towns," said Ljung, "I thought the big thing was going to be about the Kodachrome and the photography, but what was really nice was to get out there and see the country and experience it."
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